The Oxford English Dictionary variously defines “inter-” as a Latin prefix denoting “between or among the other things or persons; in the intervals of, or in the midst of, something,” “between times or places,” “between or among themselves or one another; mutually, reciprocally,” and “belonging in common to , or composed of elements derived from, different things.”
This tiny prefix looms large over the students graduating this year from the MFA programs in Interdisciplinary Arts at Columbia College Chicago. Not least because interdisciplinarity is inherently a liminal mode of making: neither this nor that, upending hidebound traditions and threatening chaos along the way. The MFA thesis show is itself a strange “inter-“ moment, a zone of suspended animation between past and future. The way ahead remains unclear, even as the door on the last three years slams shut. And let’s face it: all the old prescriptions for moving on, and moving forward, seem to have lost their efficacy. In the current state of economic collapse and uncertainty, returning to the family basement – and an uncomfortable existence of being neither child nor grownup – isn’t beyond the realm of possibility.
Something of this anxiety – and the attendant desire to establish one’s place in the world – seems to permeate this year’s MFA show. Many of these artists are grappling with their own awareness of being “inter-,” questioning the value of their inheritance and seeking out sources of potential sustenance. As often happens, nostalgia for times and places we never knew lets us down: witness Kaitlin Kostus’ discovery that a trove of beloved family recipes comes not from the romantic Old World of her Eastern European ancestors, but from American newspapers. Kostus’ attempts to live her own history by patronizing Chicago’s ethnic grocery stores yields comical yet poignant moments of dissonance, when the longed-for taste of “home” actually tastes like…crap. Amy Rabas’ work struggles with the dark heart of hunting, a proud family legacy that nevertheless harbors a murderous hubris. Nurtured on utopian tales of black sororities, Temple Jantu-tu goes looking for this second family among women of her own generation and then finds herself out of sync.
Some of these artists have pulled up stakes and struck out for new territory, seeking new tribes. Undertaking a cross-country quest, April Hannah Llewellyn leaves bits of herself behind, like crumbs, as proof that a path to belonging exists.
Daniel Lubniewski painstakingly constructs an entire alternate universe, populated by avatars and shadow-selves and analogues, while simultaneously claiming kinship with leagues of Comic-Con devotees.
But as author Toni Morrison once observed, nothing can be counted on in a world where even when you’re a solution, you’re a problem. Don Widmer’s present-day fantasia on ancient coming-of-age rites plunges his characters – and his audience – into an unnerving transition from one underworld existence to another, guided by a disembodied voice whose exhortations are not exactly comforting. These are in In-Between times – with all of us vying to connect in an increasingly virtual, neither-here-nor-there world – and it’s difficult to know where to place our trust. As the works by Jenny Garnett, Michelle Graves, and C.J. Mace reminds us, the only way to survive this no-man’s land is to keep insisting on the real – on the primacy of gesture and breath, and the animating force of blood, sweat, and tears.
-Kristen Brooke Schleifer, artist and writer living in Chicago